An essay by Phillida Bunkle on the new memoir by Sue Kedgley
Sue Kedgley has earned her uncontested place as one of New Zealand feminism’s tallest and most resilient poppies and its most internationally acclaimed proponent. Her new autobiography Fifty Years a Feminist also starts an historical reckoning of 50 years of Second Wave feminism.
Hers is a record of unflinching commitment to the cause of women and an astonishingly successful career of national and international achievement. Her straightforward, accurate, clear, pacey prose may have little warmth and less humour but brings alive the best period of creative freedom of our generation; she perfectly captures the energy and openness of boomers at their best, when their generation enthusiastically joined in a comprehensive rejection of the judgmental smallness of post-war New Zealand.
Angst is not Kedgley’s style. She recounts a life without emotional mess; her ‘pause’ and ‘mute’ buttons are always well within reach. Hers is a story of cool self-management, an acute, appraising eye, and a degree of self-assurance at that time unusual in a woman.
But it is not like the autobiographies of male contemporaries: a story of calculated steps to the board room. Kedgley leads a varied, mobile life accepting career risks with assurance, deft self-management and an unwavering commitment to women’s interests.
Like the autobiographies of boomer men it is, however, a record of high achievement and minimal introspection; reason, perhaps, why the men around my dining table found it so engaging and the women a little daunting, despite her dedication to equality and consistent solidarity with women’s causes.
The straightforward style, which loses nothing of accuracy or detail, is the hard-earned reward for the skills, habits and discipline Kedgley taught herself as she worked her way towards excellence as a print, radio and TV journalist and reporter, and a documentary film maker. She had a stellar international career reaching high into the administration of the UN and capped by a public career of six years on the Wellington Regional Council, eight on the City Council and 12 years as a Green MP.
If mental exercise and good organisation prevent boomer marble loss, Kedgley’s brain is assured of a very long life. Somehow, she has managed to write eight well-researched books combining the techniques of contemporary history with sharp journalistic skills. Most of her books explore the personal dilemmas, joys and obstacles of a wide range of contemporary women including exposing motherhood to honest open public discussion in the context of changing and competing ideologies and social constraints.
Yet, in the autobiography, the relationship with her own mother seems curiously distant. Kedgley’s primary attachment is to her twin sister, Helen. As children they roamed “freely” over their Roseneath neighbourhood. They were calmly expected to take their three-year-old selves off to kindy on the bus. Unsupervised by “anxious controlling grown-ups”, the staunchly self-sufficient couple determined their own boundaries and friendships. The expectation that children will entertain themselves around the neighbourhood initiating play and negotiating peer friendships without supervision was not unusual. What was unusual was the combination of distant maternal with warm paternal relationships. The result was a sense a freedom and agency, more typical of boomer men.
The contrast to Charlotte Grimshaw, CK Stead’s daughter, is striking. Grimshaw silenced herself, even to the point of muteness, rather than acquiesce to her father’s demand that she endorse family appearances. Grimshaw’s mother could not affirm her daughter’s reality because she had already submerged her own while the Kedgley twins endorsed their own reality and found their own voice.
We are told little about Kedgley’s mother except that she had a degree in dentistry and high educational expectations. She made few emotional demands upon her daughters. Absorbed in a “very happy and successful marriage” she did not live through the twins, “leaving us to look after ourselves whenever she could”. Absence of school gate hovering freed Kedgley from introjected maternal anxiety and conferred an enviable freedom from self-doubt that would open the world, sweeping aside resistance and riding above, or occasionally around, opposition.
Unlike so many boomers, the girls were not emotionally neglected by the glowering silence of a distant, inaccessible, war-torn father. Ted Kedgley had barely survived seemingly impossible war horrors, including life-threatening injury, survival in a prison camp, precarious life with partisans and a daring and dangerous escape. He returned home briefly to marry and conceive a son and was promptly sent back to the front to face it all again. Yet Ted Kedgley emerged from the war as “one of the warmest, most considerate, generous and tolerant” of men. an engaged “hands-on father” who “helped look after us…whenever he could”.
The foundation of secure marital attachment, lack of parental hovering and the father’s reliable emotional engagement developed a core emotional continence and self-possession in the twins; even if the brother is barely mentioned.
The ancestors contributed luck on the gold fields and superior gifts of body and brain. The psyche was formed in the childhood family. But it was the ‘elite, socially exclusive private’ Samuel Marsden Collegiate School for Girls, that provided the cool, collected, modulated and confidently appraising persona. Kedgley reacted against the school’s ‘incredibly snobbish environment’ even as it polished the invisible armour of class.
“Sue Kedgley”, one of her political colleagues once said to me, “could look through you, for England”. That distant gaze of dismissal ensures that the privately educated manage you on their terms. Its acquisition may be expensive but confers an extremely effective resilient shell. It is the great good fortune of all New Zealand women that Sue Kedgley dedicated her undoubted ‘entitlement’ to the service of us all. Her remarkable record of uncompromising commitment to equality and our collective interest are a testament to her strength of will and clear-sighted determination.
Having launched the girls as debutantes and equipped them with the class insignia of camel-haired coats, the parents conveniently exited overseas for the next decade leaving the 17-year-old twins attached only by a flimsy monthly aerogramme. They were liberated from parental anxiety and disapproval just as they took the decisive step into university. The twins arrived at Victoria at that moment when the state and full employment (at least for pākehā males) gifted the student generation the precious freedom to sit in the student cafe all day and grow up.
They quickly received an education in the realities of politics and sexism that would last a lifetime. Neither Sue’s election to the student executive nor shared honours as campus beauty queens exempted them from sudden intrusion by the gross, grabby sexism of anxious, ambitious young men fresh from abusive boys’ schools. Young men were unprepared for academic competition from unprecedented numbers of young women freed by the state from fees and supported by bursaries. Unusually free from anxious parental snooping but equipped with “no sex education of any kind”, the twins negotiated the “power struggle” of the sexual “minefield” as best they could but kept the “horrific encounters …to ourselves and assumed that if sex had gone wrong or went too far it must have been our fault”.
Lack of introjected maternal anxiety contributed to unquestioning confidence about her own decisions and a useful willingness to take career risks. She was not in the least discomforted when she met institutionalised male power for the first time. Kedgley was “not going to be pushed around by Bob Chapman”, high profile professor and university head of department. “Furious” when he “point blank” rejected her proposed thesis topic because as a “women’s liberationist” she was “biased”, she promptly took her thesis elsewhere. Self-regard was worth more than good grades.
The only time Kedgley expresses concern about income was when she challenged “the robotic and boring” teaching at Auckland Training College and was promptly suspended. “Hardly able to conceal my delight” but, nevertheless, inconvenienced by the immediate loss of her government allowance, she rang’ senior lawyer and future National Deputy Prime Minister, Jim McLay. It was not then usual for students to threaten their principals with suit; McLay ‘s letter had the desired effect on the offending principal. The “extremely satisfactory” result retained her income, relieved her of “having to waste my time in boring lectures” and freed her to get on with her thesis and women’s liberation activities.
By 1971-2, the Time of Boomer Rapture had passed in the US but descended with tumultuous energy upon New Zealand. It was heralded by the ascension of the formidable figures of Norman Kirk and Germaine Greer. Kedgley deftly managed Greer’s presence and quickly grasped the power of the media to reshape “attitudes and beliefs”. She learnt skills organising made-for-media demonstrations which played directly to the single channel national TV audience. These brilliantly conceived protests predictably provoked outraged males into publicly affirming the stereotype of men as angry, posturing bullies. Young men hurried to dissociate themselves from boring fathers by growing big hair, straggly beards and an anxious insistence on ‘free’ sex; even while upholding the male traditions of another beer and magical thinking about the origin of clean socks.
Kedgley’s singular contribution was to build a women’s movement from the legacy of the Greer’s visit. The core of Kedgley’s feminism had taken shape. Sexist Society, written with Sharyn Cederman in 1972, became the foundation text of women’s liberation in New Zealand. Women’s subordination was rooted, they believed, in the sexual division of labour between men’s paid and women’s unpaid work. This division trapped men and women in “a state of mutual enslavemen”’. Real liberation requires removal of all forms of discrimination coupled with a “radical change in social attitudes and behaviour as well as personal change and transformation”. Women sharing intimate personal experiences would develop awareness of the limitations of their lives and consciousness of their common interest in change. Men, too, had a vested interest in casting off the full burden of paid work in the interests of a fuller, more balanced life. Unaware of the role of house-keeping fairies in men’s fantasy lives, Kedgley and Cederman optimistically assumed that ‘balance’ would include shared housework and a modicum of male self-maintenance.
Kedgley’s faith in men’s vested interest in women’s liberation was not shaken when she fought off a violent rape attempt by an “incredibly successful” man at the end of 1972. She minimised the mental and physical impact of violence on herself and other women.
Kedgley was thoroughly annoyed rather than anxious when, having contributed to the organisation of the 1973 United Women’s Convention but been turned down by for jobs by the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation (NZBC) and 12 schools, she found herself “unemployable” in New Zealand. Uninhibited by a sense of risk she headed to the US to participate in the first ever international women’s movement conference and explore whatever opportunities came along. She met all the top US and international feminist leaders with aplomb and relished encounters with fellow travellers Yoko Ono and John Lennon. The opportunities that came by formed the basis of a creative career placing Kedgley at the heart of international feminism.
In New York, she assiduously prepared herself to win a UN job, ensuring that the UN’s top level international conference, inaugurating the 1973 International Women’s Year, got off the ground. Importantly, she ensured that it was more than a diplomatic jamboree and gave voice and international attention to grass roots women’s issues. This led to her becoming an “international civil servant” promoting the UN Decade for Women and culminating in appointment as the senior official for the World Conference in Copenhagen in 1980. She made a unique and invaluable contribution by gaining international recognition of the legitimacy, seriousness and depth of women’s issues.
In Going Nowhere in a Navy-Blue Suit which Kedgley edited with Mary Varnham, she provides forthright details how this extraordinary feat had been achieved. With careful deliberation she groomed herself by observing and imitating powerful men. Accelerated promotion immediately followed in the form of appointment as highly confidential aid to Kurt Waldheim, the UN Secretary-General himself. In that position, she was frequently the only women in a room observing the world’s leading alpha males jostling for attention.
Her elevation required impressive self-management. But more impressive is that the navy-blue suit did not isolate her from those beneath her on the pecking order. She campaigned amongst the likes of male clerks and porters for election to the Staff Association. Her election success ended further career advances.
In 1982, Kedgley left the UN and returned home to New Zealand. She had found her many prestigious male partners affable enough without offering long-term satisfaction. It was not, however, an easy transition for her. She encountered “a sullen and resentful mood” and met the obdurate wall habitually erected against all Kiwis and Poms who show the temerity to earn recognition overseas. She found a job on the lowest rung of on the most peripheral part of regional TV, an “intensely competitive male-dominated and frequently unpleasant environment”, cemented by the exclusive “heavy drinking and smoky culture of the bar with its undercurrent of sex exploitation”. She brought a decade of experience as a communicator to bear on the creepy blokeism of New Zealand’s myopic news media, but it would take energy and determination to advance her career to TV producer and documentary filmmaker.
In the early 1980s, there were no paid national roles to match Kedgley’s remarkable leadership qualities and experience and she found nothing to rekindle her excited sense of membership of a common global cause.
New Zealand feminism was self-funded. There was no resource except our own energy. Most feminists, such as myself, got by on marginal part-time jobs. 1980s feminism was built on voluntary labour and community activity. Kedgley saw feminist energies were fractured by infighting and attacks by right-wing Catholic and evangelical women defending traditional motherhood. Disheartened, Kedgley remained at some distance from New Zealand community-based feminism. She gave personal support to Sonja Davies’ Working Women’s Charter aimed at removing discrimination underlying the sexual division of labour. The Charter became the core of the women’s policy adopted by the Labour Party and was the key to the support of women voters which swept Labour to power in 1984. However, Kedgley was puzzled that Sonja, on being elected to Parliament in 1987, failed to even mention the Charter in either her maiden or later valedictory speeches and was deeply disappointed by Sonja’s demoralising marginalisation within the parliamentary Labour Party.
Women voters who elected the 1984 Labour Government were rewarded with a few frills like the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and Ministry of Nuclear Disarmament. While the top blokes got on with their pre-prepared, detailed plans to sink New Zealand workers into the competitive whirl of neoliberalism’s global marketplace.
Kedgley, however, seems unaware of the historic deal within Labour that ensured that, in return for reliably delivering the women’s vote, Labour women would eventually come to power – so long as they did not challenge the neoliberal agenda and co-operated in marginalising those who might. One result was that as inevitable inequalities of neoliberalism emerged, membership of the Labour Party shrank from being the largest per capita social democratic party in the world, before 1984, to a disillusioned rump in the early 1990s.
Throughout Kedgely’s career she displayed a sensitivity to the personal dynamics of power but a striking naivety about realpolitik and its economic drivers, a trait she shares with Green Party leaders.
Kedgley blames the easy defeat of 1980s women’s policy on divisions within and without the women’s movement so that there was ‘no national feminist organisation left to speak or advocate on behalf of the movement’. Dismayed by fighting between women she concluded that Second Wave feminism was
“destined to become a footnote of history”.
There were ardent and sometimes disruptive disputes which weakened feminist at the national level in the 1980s and 1990s. But, we should not under-estimate the many successful feminist initiatives which changed our society for the better. I recall the warm hospitality of shared rides, billeting and stupendous afternoon teas of The Women’s Studies Association conferences as they made their bi-annual progress around regional New Zealand. In my memory, best fruit cake was provided by either the women of Invercargill or those at the Stewart Island Rural Education women’s conference. The entire male population of Stewart Island was diverted to an ‘explosive safety workshop’ blasting bunkers on the golf course, while we women got down to the serious business of blowing holes in their world and eating fruit-cake.
Kedgley’s main contribution to feminism in these years was a series of pathbreaking books exploring women experiences and helping clarify their position while she began to forge her career in local government.
She made a successful career in local, national and international government organisations, funded from the public purse. She is inclined to overlook the community-based women’s groups which somehow managed their differences and made important contributions. Community organisations such as the Spiral Collective in the arts, the Dunedin Collective of Women, SROW, the Auckland Women’s Health Council, Women in Education, the Women’s Studies Association, WONAC, Women’s Health Action were run by volunteers or by women who, like me, were often employed in part-time, marginal jobs. These groups reached beyond the urban centres into heartland New Zealand with study days and conferences throughout the late 80s and 90s but their sometimes-informal structures may have been barely visible from Kedgley’s viewpoint.
Feminists in 1980s and 1990s found allies among the paid employees of the unions representing women workers such as nurses and teachers in the Nurses’ Organisation and the PPTA. In 1990, retail workers still represented 17% of the workforce. The National Distribution Union held public hearings throughout the country to oppose casualisation and developed valuable health education resources for women workers.
We should remember that many feminists learned to effectively manage real and sometimes painful differences to make substantial gains in fields such as education, health and the creative arts. For example, feminists transformed the culture of schools and re-designed whole professions like nursing and midwifery. Others introduced and advocated for informed consent curbing the huge power inequality between doctors and their patients. Persistence ensured this eventually led to a Code of Health and Disability Consumers’ Rights now hanging in every medical waiting room. As a result, cases of denigration and humiliation of patients are now the subjects of shocked headlines instead of tolerated as expected practice.
In 1990, Kedgley married lawyer Denis Foot, “a wonderful man – amusing, kind, supportive, politically savvy and a lot of fun”. Old boy of St Patrick’s College, Silverstream, the Roman Catholic boys’ school the equivalent of Anglican Marsden. Thrilled by the birth of their son, Foot’s lawyerly acumen, experience on city and regional Councils and personal wealth, provided an ideal base for combining work on local bodies and committees with active motherhood.
This experience led Kedgley to publish Mums the Word which brought clarity to women struggling with the fruitless, yet passionate, ideological conflict about motherhood. It presents a thoroughly sensible analysis of the polarised mostly male-authored ideologies of motherhood, which undermine women’s confidence in themselves and the maternal authority of their own mothers. She highlights unequal distribution of emotional and household labour and explores how motherhood exacerbates underlying economic inequalities.
Rod Donald become leader of the Green Party in 1995 some months after first becoming a member. When Donald recruited Kedgley onto the Green Party’s 1999 parliamentary list she was “woefully prepared for life as an MP”. Nevertheless she lent star quality to Donald’s leadership coup, strengthening his hand to remove potential rivals and replace them with people of his own choice who were as inexperienced as himself. He proved embarrassingly exploitable by the power seekers within the Alliance.
She made good use of opportunities afforded by Parliament to bring issues into the communal, if not the political, mainstream. She successfully highlighted Green issues like food and animal safety and kept alive the links between environmental and personal health such as antibiotic resistance and factory farming. She also introduced a private member’s bill to control lobbying. She did all this while most of her Green Party colleagues cavorted, trying to outflank the left.
Quite rightly she despised parliament’s “hyper-masculine culture and the confrontational and unpleasant atmosphere”, finding proceedings “bizarre and off putting”.
Kedgley disliked the style of parliament, but did not grapple with its substance. For example, she rightly rejects the authoritarian, bullying, misogynist culture of the Alliance Party. However, its policies deserve more of her consideration. Alliance policy centred on tax designed to resist neoliberalism. It aimed to reduce global financial instability, to ensure companies limit their resource use and pay their fair share of tax, so reducing the tax burden faced by ordinary people.
Kedgley mainly attributes the limitations of her political achievements to always having been in opposition. But she held an impressive list of influential board memberships. For example, she had six years on the Wellington Regional Council, eight years as a Wellington City councillor and served on the board of Capital Coast Health, helping “shift its hospital-centric focus on waiting lists and hospital deficits” towards community-based prevention. Her most powerful position was six years as deputy chair and three as chair of the important parliamentary Health Select Committee.
She did good work promoting preventative health including house insulation, diet and food quality. However, at no stage did she question the structure of health services or, crucially, access to them. For example, unless preventative health is accorded its own autonomous, accountable authority within the central structure of the publicly-provided health system, it will continue to be the poor relation, fed by food banks and donated breakfasts. Successive Labour and National governments had fragmented the health system at great expense, which diverted political awareness of the financial responsibility for health away from central government. Only now is Labour resiling from these disastrous policies. At the time, however, it was useful to Labour to have such an influential position held by someone who was unconcerned about budgets, declining public hospital capacities and rising waiting lists.
In all these potentially powerful roles, Kedgley remained silent on where the money comes from and by whom and how it is spent. That is, she ignored budgets and taxes, the core substance of government. Select committees scrutinise government expenditure. However, under Kedgley, the Health Select Committee failed to acknowledge the cruel waste of waiting lists or the deterioration of publicly provided treatment or the dramatic growth of private medicine.
Even more surprising, she is silent on New Zealand’s single most effective preventative public health initiative: the cervical cancer screening programme. This was one of the hard-won gains of the Women’s Health Movement. However, its effectiveness was compromised by underfunding leading to charging for smears and poor access for the women most at risk. It is illogical to expect people who cannot pay for basic treatment to pay for its prevention. The result is the rate of cervical cancer among Maori women is twice that of pākehā and Māori women die 2.3 times more often.
By time she left Parliament, in 2011, she was excited by a new generation of young women who were ‘reinventing feminism for themselves’. She re-discovered ‘the same sense of solidarity and sisterhood’ that she experienced at the UNO. The internet breached the isolation of women victims of coercive control. The systematic nature of men’s violence became undeniable, as was their collective complicity in maintaining it as the source of their power and control. It was like 1970s consciousness-raising all over again but this time with men’s emotional and physical violence moved to centre stage. Now, Kedgley concluded that it is men who must change; it is time to for them to take responsibility for their deep-seated “misogynistic attitudes and behaviours”. It was, and still is, her firm belief that it was in men’s interest to do so.
Nevertheless, Kedgley also provides ample, convincing evidence that such change has failed to occur, and a terrifying male backlash is under way in direct reaction to the strides that women have made, which also uses the Internet. Misogyny is still the currency of everyday male discourse. Statistically, the main daily use of the Internet is to provide men with private access to pornography and it has become a source of vicious intimidation of women trying to make further progress.
Kedgley along with all feminists, past and present finds it difficult to clarify how such a change in the structure of power can be made to occur. I believe that it is crucial to clearly identify points of leverage in ‘attitude and belief’, otherwise feminist analysis is disconnected from the economic restructuring of the global economy. What this means for most men in a winner-take-all world includes uncertain employment and precarious income. It also involves changes to family structure and reproduction; the traditional concerns of Second Wave Feminism.
Kedgley is admirably open to, and encouraging of, the ideas of Third World Feminism and feminists of the next generation who are seeking solutions to their own issues and organising in their own ways. However, she still fears that national feminist organisations in New Zealand have been ineffective because of internal divisiveness. She remains dedicated to an ecumenical feminist solidarity. As a result, sometimes she diplomatically avoids confronting deep and legitimate differences in the interest of unity.
The problem of this approach to difference and distinction is exemplified currently by the challenge of so-called trans ideology. At present, there is a proposal before the Parliament to fundamentally change the legal definition of ‘men’ and ‘women’ which is proceeding without full consultation and informed public debate. So far, however, we do not know what eliding women’s rights and trans rights means for feminism and the gains which Kedgley has spent her adult life championing. Evasion provides little space for the clarification of difference. I join Kedgley in endorsing the need for open and respectful debate.
Sue Kedgley’s memoir is a significant achievement and a welcome addition to feminist literature. It should be read by everyone with an interest in seriously addressing the wrongs and inequalities which bedevil our society and stifle its futures. It should be part of every school library and become a standard reference for everyone involved in social justice.
Fifty Years A Feminist by Sue Kedgley (Massey University Press, $35) is available in bookstores nationwide.